India-Japan Defence Relations: Promises And Problems

India’s defence minister met his Japanese counterpart recently as part of the India-Japan Annual Defence Ministerial Dialogue. The meeting gained significance amidst growing belligerence of North Korea and the stand-off between India and China at Doklam. Japan has expressed its diplomatic support to India and Bhutan becoming the first major power to do so. During the meeting, India and Japan have agreed to deepen institutional exchanges for better military preparedness and defence technology cooperation.

India and Japan have begun building closer ties as strategic situation in Indo-Pacific changes, leading to a tilt in the balance of power. The unresolved territorial disputes and deep-seated historical adversities can only serve as potential flashpoints. Both India and Japan are facing China’s aggression on these fronts. Although international legal verdicts and political opinion stress on maintaining the status-quo for building a better integrated and economically developed Asia-Pacific region, China’s aggressive posturing with almost all of its neighbours is making the situation pessimistic.

In this context, India’s former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has laid a stronger foundation for India-Japan strategic relations. The current government led by Prime Minister Modi has consolidated it by declaring Special Strategic and Global Partnership with Japan for realizing the full potential of this partnership. The relations have been institutionalized and involves various ministries, particularly defence and foreign, as well as military-to-military talks. Several initiatives have begun to take shape as part of the plan to realize Vision 2025 for peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and the world.

To uphold this commitment, India and Japan have successfully crossed an historical and emotional barrier for expressing solidarity to each other. Japan backed India on Doklam issue while India had decided to sever all ties with North Korea (except for food and medical aid) and condemned its nuclear and missile tests as disrupting normalcy in the region. Forming a unified opposition by the region’s resident two major powers to sort of belligerence could unify other actors that are currently disparate.

Such political congruence and diplomatic support serves to embolden region’s peace and stability. However, it must be backed by military commitment for deterring and rolling back potential aggression in the region. The militaries of India and Japan have to act on a unified strategy for this purpose. This requires high level of coordination, seamless communications and understanding of each other’s intents, histories and cultures. Therefore, joint training, military exercises and exchanges become significant in overall strategic cooperation. The trilateral naval exercise Malabar is a potent platform for this purpose.

The depth and sophistication of these exercise has been expanding over the years. Anti-submarine warfare (ASW) operations are a primary component of this exercise that included air, surface and sub-surface platforms. India and the United States fielded their ASW aircraft Poseidon. Japan is willing to join with its P-1 ASW aircraft for 2018 exercises. Meanwhile, India and Japan have also decided to include ASW and mine countermeasures training as part of burgeoning collaboration between the Indian Navy and Japan Maritime Self Defence Force.

India and Japan have also strengthened service level interactions with chiefs of staff of army, navy and air force from both sides interacting on a regular basis. They have also increased bureaucracy level interactions starting secretary level Defence Policy Dialogue and meetings on defence industry cooperation involving Department of Defence Production. A business-to-business meeting of Indian and Japanese industrieshas been initiatedin the recent meeting to promote defence production.

Japan could be a potential partner for strengthening India’s force levels in the Indian Ocean, which is challenged by China. China is constructing strategically relevant ports in the Indian Ocean to replenish its submarines based on which it could deploy a permanent force. India needs to immediately modernize and improve its ASWforce levels if it were to counter China’s designs for the Indian Ocean.

India and Japan have been in talks to export US-2 amphibious aircraft but are yet to formalize a deal. The US-2 is a Japanese non-offensive platform that can help crew and equipment transport as well as aid disaster relief. Its ability to take-off and land on both land and water makes it relevant for crew and equipment transportation as well as aid in disaster relief. The aircraft is particularly suitable for securing India’s interests in Andaman and Nicobar islands.

However, Japanese industries lacking international business experience could be a hurdle. Japan has self-imposed restrictions on transfer of sensitive technologies, particularly exports of offensive military platforms. This has been a factor in Japan losing Australia’s submarine deal. India and Japan intended to start with the acquisition of US-2 allowing the latter room for domestic negotiations on relaxing some of the restrictions. Defence acquisitions and joint development and production could really consolidate this emerging relationship. India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Acquisition, Technology and Logistic Agency (ATLA) are already in talks for collaboration on unmanned vehicles and robotics projects. However, the outcome of these projects is dependent on Japan’s willingness to provide relevant access to its technologies and India’s capacity to absorb them.

India-Japan defence relations show considerable promise especially since the political, bureaucratic and military services on both sides are warm to the idea of strengthening relations amidst fast changing geopolitical realities. Abe will be visiting India soon and it could be expected to promote strategic and defence relations further. However, the political congruence is yet to make a substantial impact on the ground elevating India’s military preparedness.

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